Documentary photography is tough to define. Every genre of photography is really documenting something. However, capturing certain people, places, events or objects with relevance and significance to history and everyday life is the base of “documentary photography”. It is not only photography, rather, storytelling.
There is a reason why this genre of photography can be notably unyielding and flinty – it is time consuming, requires a lot of patience and is extremely intimidating. Nevertheless, this article solely exists so you can be a better storyteller. Here’s how:
Find the right subject
The accurate subject can be immensely difficult to find when you’re too lofty. You do not have to start off by photographing a political convocation or rally, or a maximum security prison. Look within your own community or even your own home. You may find distinct stories. Carrie Mae Weems spent an entire year photographing her kitchen table, the series attained great historical significance, reflecting on womanhood, family and maternity. Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with aiming big; Mohammad Ponir Hossain won the Pulitzer Prize after photographing the Rohingya refugees in Teknaf, Bangladesh. If you’re decisive about a certain project – do it. You will never know what people may find intriguing.
Research, take time, and interact
It’s always wise to research before you photograph the subject. The vision will undeniably look clearer in your head, you will be able to prepare and think ahead for possible situations and outcomes. Dedicate plenty of time to a certain project. Documentary photographer GMB Akash said in an interview with the International Photography Magazine, “During doing any project at first for many days I never take pictures because they would not be good. I would not know the people I met nor understand the place.” When you take time, by default people will be more comfortable and natural around you. Interacting and communicating with your subject is key. At the end of the day, documentary photos are to be the closest to reality.
Choose your equipment wisely
Big and bulky DSLRs will not make you a better photographer. Sometimes, bigger cameras can be menacing, it’s like pointing a gun at someone’s head. It also might put you in a risky situation if you’re in the middle of a crowd. They usually tend to be very unpredictable. It is always better to use smaller, easy to access essential cameras. Some examples may be the Fujifilm X100F, Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II, Panasonic TZ200 / SZ200, Sony RX100 VI, etc. You do not have to sell a kidney to buy your camera though, with phone cameras improving every day, you may as well use one.
Practice more often
Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” The secret of the scroll is to practice. The more you do, the more you understand about the genre. Before going into months and year long projects or more, practice a project with a week time, or forty eight hours of time. However, do not rush. The experience will improve your work, and soon, you’ll find your big break. Although the process is exhausting, it is rewarding, and even if on a small-scale, changes and inspires people.
Some photographers you may draw inspiration from are Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Raghu Rai, Kosuke Okahara, David Goldblatt, GMB Akash, Soumya Sankar Bose, and Ara Güler.